A thesis is a rare opportunity. I never thought I'd return to school after receiving my undergraduate degree. I never thought I'd get to work on a project which wasn't for work, in my personal time, or as an entrepreneurial venture. The parameters and constraints – and oppportunities and affordances – are totally different. It's liberating. It's exciting. It's daunting.
I don't plan to go back to school again. So I better make it worthwhile.
I recently discussed the merits of grad school with a friend. I found myself recognizing that a huge portion of the value generated is simply in giving yourself a structure in which to self-learn. The time I've spent teaching myself things in the context of classes, rather than in class itself, seems some of the most fruitful of the last fifteen months. It's a little paradoxical to come to school to teach yourself, but I think it's true of most creative education. We are nurtured. We push ourselves forward, confront hurdles, and are helped beyond them through mentorship and support.
This dynamic amplifies a truth in most education, and particularly in adult learning – one gets out what one puts in.
Thesis is the pinnacle of this. We take ownership, make leaps and strides, make missteps and falls, and ultimately take away what we put in.
I watched a wonderful talk by Alan Kay. He began his career in computing in 1961, and unapologetically critiques the current era. Amongst many other salient points, he argues that it's relatively easy to forge a path in computer science without a deep understanding of the past.
He calls upon two pertinent quotes:
"Most people can only experience the present in terms of the past. Which means they can only conceive the future in terms of the present." Marshall McLuhan
"He who only knows his own generation remains forever a child." Cicero
This limited outlook holds us back. Computer science has become like pop music, built on a fraction of a fraction of musical knowledge and potential. You might say we stand on the shoulders of giants, but take baby steps.
I think this applies beyond the programming problems Kay is considering, to the many deep problems of human-computer interaction. Kay, of course, made some of the biggest paradigm leaps in the latter field. He is a giant on whose shoulders we stand whenever we design for graphical user interfaces.
Whereas leaps can be made in programming that benefit users without needing their understanding, or even awareness, leaps in human-computer interaction by definition require engagement from the user. Perhaps this is a reason for gradual change in the field, and arguably conservatism.
I think one of the constraints that help perpetuate this conservatism is the concern in the consumer technology industry with appealing to everyone. There's great incentive to make widely understood general-purpose devices.
Here's Steve Jobs in 2009:
"I’m sure there will always be dedicated devices, and they may have a few advantages in doing just one thing. But I think the general-purpose devices will win the day because I think people just probably aren’t willing to pay for a dedicated device."
He hasn't been proven wrong on this, the trend continues against 'niche' devices. But as we spend more and more time on computers, and more and more of us pay our bills through sitting at one for dozens of hours a week doing specialized work, the way we stretch general-purposeness starts to seem a little absurd.
As my focus runs counter to the prevailing 'Swiss Army Knife' model of computing, advocating for limited purpose but efficacious creative tools, I recognize the value and interest in the work may be 'niche' too.
I'm not sure everyone will 'get it', and I'm not sure that they need to.
My personal satisfaction will come from feeling I've put in everything I can, and in doing so made significant leaps in my knowledge of the field* and my ability to contribute to it in the future.
The value my thesis can generate is likely in asking the right questions, and getting people – whether they sit next to me in class, work in the creative industries, or are simply interested – to see the importance of such questions. If by extension those people absorb those questions into their own thinking, work and output it will have been more than worthwhile.
*Such that Cicero wouldn't call me a child.